Developing a Community of Engaged Learners

Posted on August 3, 2012
by FeliciaOctocog

A large percentage of high school students are disengaged from learning.  Nationwide 50% of these students do not go on to any post-secondary education (38% here in Essex County, MA).

I have always been an engaged learner so it has been a long path for me to realize that for many, learning can appear to be irrelevant and, yes, boring. In fact, this is the most common reason students cite for dropping out. These students see no clear connection between their schoolwork and the “real world.”  Such connections are difficult to make in a classroom and teachers can only do so much “out of classroom learning” in a school day. Experiential, hands-on learning, community service, service learning, and career linkages through internships, job shadowing, and industry field trips are essential to engage many of our older students and this is why out-of-school programs are a critical extension of our educational system.

Through collaborations with Salem Schools, community organizations and local businesses, Salem CyberSpace, has been expanding its “real world” activities so that students can make connections between school and their world while building critical thinking, problem solving, communication and team work skills.

Last spring, Salem CyberSpace and Salem High School co-wrote a grant to deliver a service learning science project to students at risk for failing MCAS.  The partnership also included Salem Sound Coastwatch, the National Park Service and the North Shore Youth Career Center. 20 students who are academically at risk spend 20 hours per week for 6 weeks this summer to identify and deliver a project related to an environmental issue facing Salem Sound. Approximately 60% of this class is comprised of ESL students so the classroom also has an ESL teacher to co-teach.

Each day, students spend the first two hours in a lab learning about the science related to our waterways.  As an example, this past week students learned about bacteria, nutrients, osmosis, salinity, and turbidity through labs and field work.

Students get a free lunch at the high school and then head into the field with their instructors to apply their knowledge in the waters, beaches and marshes around Salem. Students will identify a problem they want to tackle as their summer project. One week this summer will also be dedicated to learning about careers in science.  “The program makes science more understandable by doing hands-on activities. Going to high school, it will make a difference when I take biology”, said Chanel Garcia who will be a freshman at Salem High School in September.

Taking on a project for which they will be accountable also resonates with the students and gives relevance to their learning. “This program helps the environment and at the same time we learn how the environment works and how we can impact the environment,” said Pablo Encarnacion, an ESL student and 11th grader at the high school.

Through this program we hope to see improved MCAS scores, more engaged and independent learners, and an expanded understanding of how science knowledge can help solve real problems. “Having the students all day allows us to complete a lab, do field work and reflect on it when it is fresh in the student’s minds. It helps them retain and understand the material better,” said Graeme Marcoux, the Biology and Environmental Science teacher for the summer program and at the high school.

“Having so much time with the same students all day allows us to work with the students on becoming independent learners,” said Mary Kate Adams, the ELL teacher..

After school academic programs for older youth are scarce, underfunded, and staff receives little, if any, professional development. Therefore to succeed, programs like ours have to find partners. We are fortunate here in Salem to have a Superintendent, school principals and a Mayor who understand the benefits of after-school programs.  However, I cannot help but think that we could develop an integrated web of after-school programs each with its own unique core competencies, that work together and share resources, and who are more closely aligned with the public school and state priorities. As an example, if after school academic staff could participate in professional development days at the schools, our staff would obtain valuable information on pedagogy and educational priorities while forging connections with teachers. We could create a model of a city-wide coordinated afterschool program serving youth, grades 6 -12, where students can move from program to program transparently and where after-school and in-school staff work collaboratively for the students. This would be a powerful resource for our youth. It is certainly something we should think about as we debate the merits of an extended day model.